The first recorded goat kidnapping was in 1953. On November 22, Bill the Goat was thrown into a soft-top convertible, lying slack-jaw across the backseat as the car sped north for West Point, New York.
By the time police arrived at the United States Naval Academy's Thompson Stadium, all that was left were two cans of chloroform, a rag, and an empty goat shed.
This wasn't about ransom; it was psychological warfare in the name of Army football. The 54th Army-Navy game was a week away.
Army cadets Ben Schemmer and Alex Rupp planned the kidnap. They had to do something to raise the spirit of the Corps of Cadets at West Point. The cadets had lost hope in their football team and no one knew this better than the Rabble Rousers, Army's cheerleading squad that included Ben and Alex.
In 1950, West Point was hit with a cheating scandal that led to the expulsion of 90 cadets and gutted the football team, which had just finished an 8-1 season. The next year they went 2-7 even with storied head coach Red Blaik and offensive line coach Vince Lombardi (one year before signing on as offensive coordinator for the NY Giants.)
Army could suffer through bad seasons, but by 1953 they hadn't beaten Navy in three years. At West Point, where "Go Army, Beat Navy" is religion, morale was low indeed.
Ben Schemmer's goal was to intimidate other teams and in doing so inspire the corps and their football team. He'd test out his strategy against an undefeated Duke team earlier in the '53 season. No one thought Army had a chance. Not even Army.
Ben wanted chaos. He dragged a captured World War II cannon onto the sidelines and fired blanks for every Army point scored – a tradition he started that still happens to this day. He had every cadet in the bleachers stand the entire game and chant "GO GO GO." The noise shook the stadium as battle smoke lifted off the field. Army won 14-13. After the game, Duke quarterback Worth Lutz said that Army's "savage cheering" had sent his team into a "nervous fright."
Ben knew he was onto something. He also knew that the upcoming game against Navy required more. He needed the goat.
Ben's objective, Bill the Goat (full name: Bill XII), was the twelfth incarnation of the longhaired Angora goat that served as Navy's mascot. They're royal-looking beasts with horns that corkscrew out of their heads.
Bill's origin dates back to 1893, three years after the inaugural Army–Navy football game, in 1890, which Navy won 24-0. According to the plaque on the statue of the charging ram at the Naval Academy, midshipmen "commandeered" a goat as they marched from the ferry up to West Point for a football game. Then there's the origin myth told in one of Navy's Alumni magazines: in the 1880s, some sailors kept goats as pets at sea (others ate them). When one such beloved goat died at sea, two sailors were given the hide to have mounted, but on their way to the taxidermist they stopped at a Navy football game. "Overcome with Navy spirit, [the sailor] grabbed the goat hide, draped it over his back and entertained the crowd." Navy won. The goat was a hit.
The Army mules first appeared in 1899. Army chose the mule because they had been taking the strong, trusted animals to war for years. They could haul baggage, ambulances, and artillery. The first mule mascot brought the 1899 Army football team good luck, too: they defeated Navy, 17-5. The mule and the goat had become symbols of this significant rivalry and, as such, occasional targets of mischief.
Ben and Alex recruited a third accomplice, a member of the Army band, whose convertible qualified him to be the getaway driver. Ben was sure that Bill, horns and all, wouldn't fit in a regular car.
Once in Annapolis, they snuck through the academy to the goat shed. A voice called out to them outside the shed. They freaked. They thought they'd been caught. But it was fellow cadet, Emery Wetzel. He beat them to it. Wetzel had Bill the Goat in a rowboat on the shore by the stadium. They agreed to stuff the goat in the backseat of the convertible. Bill put up a fight, but the cadets anticipated that. Thus, chloroform.
The cadets were well into New Jersey when the radio broadcast the news that Bill was missing. They stopped for gas, and as the attendant filled the tank, the chloroform wore off. Bill jumped up and his horns tore through the soft-top. The attendant yelled, "They got the goat!" The cadets wrestled Bill down, paid, and drove off.
The plan was to reveal Bill at dinner in Washington Hall, the cadet mess hall. Every cadet would be there. Ben made a box big enough to hide Bill in and set it up in front of the tables. Once every cadet was seated he let the sides of the box fall. The big reveal: he and Al and the getaway driver standing proud with Bill. The place went berserk. Cadets jumped on chairs. They took off their dress gray jackets and whipped them over their heads. They hollered, laughed, cheered, screamed, lost their minds. Ben paraded the goat through the crowd.
Navy had a good idea who took Bill and word spread fast. President Eisenhower, a West Point grad, who had played on the 1912 football team, ordered the goat's immediate return. The cadets were upset; they had wanted to hand Bill over to Navy on the football field.
"It was too bad," said W.C. "Tiny" Tomsen, one of the cadets at the mess hall that night. "Billy could have provided one hors d'oeuvres for each cadet."
The cadets' spirit was still on high at the game. In front of 102,000 people, they chanted again like a mad, barking choir, the Rabble Rousers conducting. The team went mad too. Bob Farris, tackle and linebacker, played so hard he went blind in one eye. He played the second half with a detached retina.
Army won, 27-7. The cadets stormed the field and tore down the goal posts. Bill stood safe on the sidelines, unaware that he'd been the first goat in a long line of goats to be kidnapped by West Point cadets.
This new tradition would become largely one-sided—it does seem easier to steal a 200-pound goat than a 1,400-pound mule. You can chloroform a mule, but you still have to move it. While Bill may have been successfully kidnapped many times since 1953, there has been only one Army mule heist.
In 1991, Navy football was 0-10 heading into its rivalry game. Two weeks earlier, Wake Forest beat them 52-24 in their own stadium. Beating Army wouldn't undo a bad season, but it'd be a hell of a way to end the year.
At the time, my mom was working at the veterinary clinic, down the road from Michie Stadium on West Point, where the mules used to live before they moved to my family's backyard years later. I've been on the periphery of these mascot kidnappings most my life.
On December 5, a team of seventeen midshipmen disguised as military police raided the clinic and captured all four Army Mules: Spartacus, Traveller, Trooper, and Ranger. It was a Thursday, two days before the Army-Navy game.
"Most of us were seniors so it was now or never," Dave Rudko, one of the midshipmen involved, told me via email.
Twenty midshipmen altogether spent a year plotting the heist.
Disguised as tourists, they visited West Point to scope the place. They took pictures of the clinic. Drew maps. Planned escape routes. They sent one midshipman to study the alarm systems. They even consulted a Maryland mule farmer by the name of Tennessee Denton. He lent them a horse trailer and some food sweetened with molasses that the mules (hopefully) couldn't resist.
My mom remembers getting phone calls at the clinic in the weeks leading up to the mule heist. She said someone kept calling to book an appointment for their dog on a Thursday morning, but she told them, repeatedly, that no one would be there to help. In retrospect, she's sure it was the midshipmen doing reconnaissance.
They turned a room at a cheap motel outside West Point into HQ. Their mission began at 9 AM. Dressed in Army uniforms, they drove onto the base with vehicles that had "I Love My Cadet" stickers, Denton's trailer in tow.
They were surprised to find so many people at the clinic (perhaps thanks to my mom). The midshipmen announced themselves as military police. Shawn Callahan, a senior, told them, "We're delivering the feed for the game." The sergeant in charge didn't believe them, but before he realized what was really going on, the midshipmen hogtied him using plastic ties they brought for handcuffs. They cut the phone lines and locked the rest of the employees in a room.
The mules followed the molasses. J.R. Anderson, who would later become a Navy Seal, led the mules out of the clinic, shaking the food at them, and right into the horse trailer. The raid took approximately ten minutes.
West Point is a citadel flanked by mountains and the Hudson River – not an easy place to escape. The midshipmen broke up into two convoys. The truck with the mules left first, taking a more roundabout route that, they hoped, neither Army nor the police would expect. The mules would head north up to Albany, cut west through Pennsylvania, then down to Maryland. The second group waited twenty minutes before driving straight back down to Annapolis. On their heels were state police, military police, and three UH-1 Huey Cobra helicopters.
"We saw authorities at various tollbooths," said Dave Rudko, who was in the second caravan. "They were looking for the mule trailer."
All seventeen midshipmen plus the mules were to rendezvous at Tennessee Denton's farm, outside the Naval Academy, while the rest of the brigade attended the Beat Army pep rally. The mule thieves had a pretty good idea that the police would be waiting for them at the entrance, so they contacted Lt. Angela Smith, who at the time was Command Duty Officer at the academy. They told her they had the mules and wondered if maybe she could help.
When they arrived, the police did indeed have the entrance blocked; they ripped the midshipmen out of their cars, and pushed them up against the baseball field fence. When there are helicopters after you, getting arrested seems like the next logical step, so the midshipmen complied.
But Lt. Smith got to them before they were cuffed. Since the midshipmen were military property and she was in charge of said property, she not only demanded that the police release the guys but in fact requested the police to escort them, mules and all.
As the Army mules walked into the pep rally, the brigade couldn't believe what they were witnessing. "Excited cannot even describe the feeling. We were able to pull off the near-impossible," Dave Rudko said.
After 38 years of Bill kidnappings, Navy finally had hostages of their own. Four of them.
Navy beat Army, 24-3, on the 101st anniversary of their first rivalry football game. Even with a 1-10 season, they still celebrated. They beat their chief rival, after all. Tennessee Denton lent one of his own mules with a letter "A" taped to its butt for head coach George Chaump to ride into the post-game party that night.
The Commandant of Midshipmen even created a certificate to honor the seventeen men who had pulled the whole thing off, a unique award for a new elite club. He called it The Order of the Mule.
At this point, the Pentagon had enough with chloroformed goats, stolen mules, and deployed helicopters, so they drafted up a Memorandum of Agreement—no more mascot kidnapping—and made Army and Navy sign it. The truce wouldn't last. The goats were stolen again in 1995, in 2002, in 2007's Operation Good Shepherd, and most recently, in 2012, when they were nabbed twice in two weeks.
In 2012, I was home with my mom when we got the call from the colonel: the Navy goats were found chained to a tree at Trophy Point, the heart of West Point.
The colonel called because the Army Mules lived in our backyard: Ranger III and Stryker, 1,400 pounds apiece, with A's painted in gold on their rears. My parents coach the mule riders. My dad is the man on the field with the mules at games.
We were to take the goats off base and keep them on our farm for the night. I helped my mom hitch the trailer.
Just a week prior, one of the Bills, was found outside the Pentagon. No one knew who did it, but Navy figured Army. Now we were looking at two of them, Bill XXXVIII and Bill XXXIV, surrounded by dozens of cast iron cannons and next to the Beat Navy tunnel.
The colonel looked displeased as the cadets instagrammed themselves with the goats. All 4,000 of them had just been briefed about how to behave during the week leading up to the Army-Navy game – like, "no goat kidnapping."
We loaded the goats onto the trailer. The colonel escorted us home, where he proceeded to ask if I could take his picture with the Bills. The way the colonel smiled for the photos, said something like, "At least we're good at stealing goats." By that year, Army football hadn't beat Navy in a decade.
Military police were put on high alert for a possible retaliation by the midshipmen. The colonel had cadets posted on the farm all night. The fear of future Navy Seals invading our backyard kept me awake. But there was no retaliation. The goats went home in the morning.
Neither academy found out who left the one goat at the Pentagon or who tied both goats up in West Point. Turns out, it was the same cadet, who wishes to remain anonymous—understandable, since he tied stolen military property to the Pentagon and infiltrated his own academy with the same a week later. We'll call him Scott. I talked to him on the anniversary of the day he left Bill at the Pentagon.
"The reason we wanted to do it was we had been fed-up with the way West Point was being portrayed to the public," he said. He didn't like the way the old West Point grads seemed to look down at his generation of cadets.
Scott said he'd never done anything so risky before. He's still ashamed of how he scouted the dairy farm where the goats lived. The worst thing he'd ever done in his life, he told me, was having his friend pretend to be autistic when they got to the farm. He figured this would make him look the least bit suspect—just a nice guy showing his autistic brother the animals. When they came across the goats, he knew right away they were the Navy goats.
He had another friend, an exchange student from Africa whose parents were goat farmers. He showed Scott how to trip a goat, tie up a goat, put it over his shoulders and run. "We figured no problem," he said. "A grab-and-go operation."
The day after Thanksgiving, Scott and his accomplices rented a U-Haul. Dressed like ninjas, they parked their rig far away from the farm and ran through the woods. Once in the farm, Scott realized the goats were way bigger than he remembered. "Let's just say that the type of goats my friend was used to working with were not Angora goats," he said. He knew right away which ones belonged to Navy. "They're just majestic."
Scott, however, hadn't expected a fight. They'd grab one goat and the other would attack from behind. They finally managed to get one tied up. It weighed more than Scott. It thrashed as he tried to move it. It wouldn't budge. They had to back the U-Haul right up to the edge of the property as it beeped beeped beeped, and loaded the goat against his will.
"I thought I was going to jail for sure. I mean, here we are with a goat – what are we gonna do with it? I didn't think that far ahead."
Scott and his friends drove around aimlessly, brainstorming where a Navy goat would get the biggest reaction. They finally thought of the Pentagon: as one accomplice put it, Scott said, "You've got twenty-year grads from each academy working in the same office."
They did laps around the Pentagon looking for a prime spot to dump Bill. They wound up on Army Navy Drive.
"Who knew the Pentagon was on Army Navy [Drive]? I had no idea. So we took it out and tied it to a lamppost in a parking lot about 50 yards from the Pentagon police station."
They knew that the police would spot Bill quick. They wouldn't be leaving him in any danger.
Scott imagined the headlines but feared arrest. "I'm half expecting on our ride home for an emergency announcement on the radio... 'The goat was stolen from the Naval Academy.' But nothing. Nobody cared."
Back at West Point, no one said anything. Like it never happened. After a few days the fear of getting in trouble subsided and Scott was annoyed that nobody gave a shit. There were a few articles written about it, but he thought they made it sound like he left Bill tied to a median in the middle of the road. He denied that.
Then he saw a Visa commercial.
Morgan Freeman narrates as Michael Phelps swims. Scott quoted it from memory: "A hundredth of a second... is faster than the blink of an eye. Faster than a flash of lightning. And it was the difference between Michael Phelps winning eight gold medals instead of seven. A hundredth of a second. Just think of the cheers if lightning strikes twice."
Morgan Freeman convinced him to steal the goat again. He had to strike twice. "The only message we sent to anybody was that cadets were reckless, stealing goats, dropping them off at random places and wasting taxpayer money. We decided that therefore our mission was not accomplished."
Scott and his friends planned the next kidnapping like it was an actual military operation. No more ninja costumes. This time they'd wear their Army Combat Uniforms.
They contacted some academy grads, asking for moral support. The old grads offered more than that: they lent Scott night vision goggles and a heat-seeking gun that could detect life from 200 meters away, just in case the Bills had been relocated and were in hiding—which Bills are known to do before the game, and I imagine even more so since having just been returned from the Pentagon.
But the goats were back on the same farm.
Scott realized that one of his mistakes during the first attempt was just taking one goat – that if he took both, maybe they wouldn't put up such a fight. It worked. No tripping, no tying, no throwing over the shoulder. They walked right off the farm and into the trailer.
The Memorandum of Agreement makes it so that West Point can't support the kidnappings, which makes it almost impossible to sneak the goats onto the base. Scott managed it however, under cover of fog and rain, and chained them up at Trophy Point. They watched from a safe distance as their classmates took pictures with the goats, as the colonel arrived, then me and my mom.
Army lost 17-13 that year, their eleventh loss in a row to Navy. Taking the goats might not have paid off for West Point, but the academy grads were proud. The best moment for Scott, he said, was meeting with the older grads at the game.
Bagging the mascots doesn't guarantee a win. As much as it's meant to piss each other off and build spirit, it's also become a way for current cadets and midshipmen to communicate with their leaders before them. A way to prove themselves, as though they're competing with the past. But also, like Scott told me, it's hilarious. "Even the Pentagon thinks it's funny. But they can't allow it."
"Football is our window to the outside," once said Admiral Thomas Lynch, who was the Superintendent of the Naval Academy in 1991. What he meant was: football is a good distraction for these military teams. This 124-year-old rivalry, and the rest of their football seasons, good or bad, are a chance to escape the rigors of their military lives. It's a chance to scream and cheer and steal mascots. Because these players and their classmates, the men and women in their respective uniforms, yelling in the stands, will go on to command fleets, command artillery, fly helicopters, go to space, become Presidents and more.
Whether the Pentagon likes it or not, this tradition will never die amongst the cadets and midshipmen. I've read the obituaries of the men who took Bill XII in 1953. Each one mentions the day they delivered the goat to West Point.
As of this writing the mules are safe in my backyard, and as far as I know the goats are in Annapolis. But I hope these young soldiers keep breaking the truce for another hundred years.